in Criterion Month

Gozilla (1954)

The Criterion Collection made a big deal out of spine #1,000 by releasing their biggest box set yet: Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, a collection of the first 15 Godzilla movies. (The title refers to the period of Emperor Shōwa’s reign.) The set comes in an oversized hardcover book filled with dozens of beautiful illustrations and essays that make it equally at home as a display piece on the mantle or a coffee table book. I’m proud to own it and show it off… but I do have one dark secret: I’m not sure I deserve to own such a exquisite prize. You see, before this month, the only Showa-Era movie I’d seen is the first King Kong vs. Godzilla. And now that I’ve finally watched the original Gozilla, I don’t foresee see myself checking out the other 13 movies any time soon. That’s not great, because if I was just going to watch the first one, Criterion already released that forever ago. Let me try to explain why my eyes are bigger than my stomach when it comes to kaiju movies.

Gozilla was co-written and directed by Ishirō Honda and produced and distributed by Toho Studios in 1954. If you’re a little older than me, you might confuse it with 1956’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters! which localized this story by adding a bunch of new scenes directed by Terry O. Morse about an American reporter (Raymond Burr) reacting to the events of the film. That’s just one of the many ways Gozilla paved the way for the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to become such a big part of my boyhood, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first Gozilla, as you might expect, is a much simpler story than its successors. Ships have started mysteriously sinking near Odo Island in the Sea of Japan, where the local fisherman have started struggling finding anything to catch. This lines up with a local legend about “Godzilla,” a giant monster that will eat all the fish in the sea and then come onto land to start eating the people. One night, a terrible storm hits the island and along with it a gargantuan beast is seen leaving a wake of destruction. The villagers lobby the government for relief and are sent Professor Yamane (Takashi Shimura, the Ikiru guy) who makes many disturbing discoveries in his investigation. Any doubt he had that this was the work of a giant monster is washed away when the monster shows itself once again, this time in broad daylight.

Yamane returns to Tokyo and presents his findings: Godzilla is an ancient creature, closely related to dinosaurs, who was disturbed by underwater hydrogen bomb testing and is now in the process of evolving from a sea creature to a terrestrial terror. The decision is made to kill Godzilla, which disappoints Yamane, who thinks Godzilla is unkillable and the priority should be to study its immunity to radiation. Disillusioned, Yamane returns home, where his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kōchi) is embroiled in a juicy love triangle. Emiko has fallen in love with salvage ship captain Ogata (Akira Takarada) but she is in an arranged engagement to her father’s brooding, eye patch-wearing colleague, Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). A reporter arrives asking for an interview with Serizawa, which Emiko agrees to arrange so she can have a chance to break up with him. But Serizawa only agrees to show his research to Emiko, and what she sees is so frightening she forgets entirely about her engagement.

I won’t spoil what happens next, but you should know that there are no other kaiju in this movie. Gozilla actually pioneered the filmmaking technique known as suitmation, where an actor in a suit (often surrounded by scale miniatures and shot at a low angle) is filmed at a high framerate to appear slower. This was critical, as only two men – Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka – had the strength and endurance to survive wearing the first Godzilla suit. The actors often only had to wear half the suit but for full-body shots, Nakajima could only act for three minutes before passing out. He lost 20 pounds during the production. It’s funny how often landmark cinema comes out of difficult productions: Orson Welles suffered several injuries and battled the studio to make Citizen Kane. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws went way over budget, took three times as long to shoot as it was supposed to, and suffered many, many technical issues. The making of Star Wars was, at best, “turbulent” and almost no one involved seemed to actually believe in the movie, aside from George Lucas. Sometimes art hurts.

But I love that there is no kaiju-on-kaiju action in this. I feel like once a movie switches to being about multiple giant monsters, humanity becomes irrelevant. And when humanity doesn’t matter, how can anything? It’s just action, we’re merely along for the ride. That can be fun, but it’s not nearly as interesting as stories like the one of this Gozilla. This is a sad movie! People die needless deaths against a force a nature they can’t possibly stand up against. It’s an obvious metaphor for the destruction Japan endured during WWII and the dangerous powers mankind had started to play with. Nearly 70 years later, it’s still sadly easy to relate for the mournful attitude Yamane has for our treatment of the planet. The opening shots of this movie don’t look that different from the disturbing images that came out of the Gulf of Mexico last week.

Compared to that, the rest of Godzilla’s adventures sound pretty childish. So I don’t think I’ll be watching the rest of this collection for quite a while, at least not while things continue to feel so dire out in the real world. That’s not to say the Gozilla movies never went back in this direction; I think Gareth Edwards’ 2014 American remake did a great job bringing back the series’ horror roots (even though that tone was completely abandoned by the sequels), and I still believe 2016’s Shin Gozilla is the king of these monsters. But Roger Ebert wrote that “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” and no matter how hard I try, I just can’t empathize with a giant lizard having a hard time fighting a giant dragon.